Get a glimpse of Dalston’s apocalyptic, post-Brexit future

In a new video, artist Lawrence Lek imagines the devastating effects of a ‘Leave’ vote

Today, the people of the UK are being given the opportunity to vote in one of the biggest referendums in the country’s history. The results – due tomorrow morning – will have a huge influence on our future, and could irreparably affect British culture, creativity and lifestyle. We will either be keeping our European Union membership, or waking up tomorrow as an entirely independent state.

For Lawrence Lek, a ‘Leave’ result would be catastrophic. The German-born, Malaysian-Chinese artist has spent much of his life as a UK resident, but – like many others over the last few weeks – he began to grow concerned at the resentment the referendum was causing. “Brexit isn’t about the UK and Europe, it’s the last stand of a politics of xenophobia, empire and racism,” he explains. “Germany, Malaysia and China have all had turbulent and often violent relationships with the UK. But it’s 2016 now, and those histories have been buried under the interests of economic development and mass culture.”

His latest project, “Europa, Mon Amour”, is a direct response to this division. The 14-minute visual takes us through the dreamy, post-apocalyptic streets of east London following a potential Brexit vote, with Dalston’s Rio cinema deserted, and Gillett Square in flames. We caught up with Emerging Artist Award-winning Lek to find out more about his vision.

“Brexit isn’t about the UK and Europe, it’s the last stand of a politics of xenophobia, empire and racism” – Lawrence Lek

Firstly, what inspired you to make this project?

Lawrence Lek: Brexit would be a step back to the 19th century, to a world where the UK saw itself as the global superpower. Except now it would be a delusion. ‘Europa, Mon Amour’ is a virtual fantasy world based on this very real, but troubling, scenario. Dalston, acting as a proxy for the whole of the country, is buried under mountains of sand, luxury apartments lie in ruins, and only cultural landmarks like the Rio cinema and Efes snooker club are reminders of the vibrant life of the pre-Brexit UK.

Why specifically did you choose Dalston?

Lawrence Lek: I want to capture snapshots of London, places before they disappear. ‘Europa, Mon Amour’ is an update of a work I made for Open Source, an art festival which takes place in Gillett Square in the middle of Dalston. NTS Radio is actually based there, so I’ve put in a DJ booth in tribute to them. Dalston is a great example of just how relentless London’s transformation has become. I have a lot of memories of the area, from playing as a musician in venues like Barden’s Boudoir (now rebranded as The Nest) and the Pattern Cutting Factory (now demolished and replaced by flats), to late nights in Efes Snooker Club and Turkish canteens. So whatever the political critique behind the work, it’s combined with real nostalgia.

Do you feel like Brexit would genuinely be disastrous? Or do you feel like people are being overly fearful?

Lawrence Lek: The problem is that both sides are fearful. Those wanting to leave fear immigration, those wanting to stay fear for immigration. It would be worst in the UK for the young, for those without stable incomes, without property. Mobility is one of the few benefits for a millennial generation without economic stability. With less options to emigrate, the post-Brexit generation would live in a smaller world.

Seen from the outside, it might well be the last inevitable stage of postcolonialism. Over the last hundred years, the UK has gradually shrunk as former colonies have gained independence. Brexit would continue this pattern, except instead of independence, it would be a xenophobic policy from a nation afraid. 

How has your view on British culture changed now, compared to before the referendum?

Lawrence Lek: When I came to London in 1993, capitalism hadn’t really arrived at the capital yet. Shops weren’t allowed to open on Sundays, there was a sprawling Cardboard City for the homeless, where the Imax cinema now stands near Waterloo station. Even though I was only a kid, it struck me as strange how rave anthems and Euro dance tunes were played on Top 40 radio. There is something in British culture that celebrates the outsider, champions the underdog, loves the eccentrics. My view on British culture hasn’t changed since then, in that it’s essentially a libertarian permissive society where individuals have a lot of autonomy and creative freedom. That’s why I’m still here. It’s only the politics of fear that’s the problem. 

“There is something in British culture that celebrates the outsider, champions the underdog, loves the eccentrics...  That’s why I’m still here” – Lawrence Lek

What are your hopes for the future?

Lawrence Lek: When the hoped-for future arrives, it’s much less attractive. The present does not exist in advertisements or politics, because it can’t be manipulated to the same degree as the past or the future. But because I make virtual worlds, most of my fears and hopes get embedded in my work in some way. So uncertainty is creatively compelling. 

Over the last few years, I’ve made virtual worlds that combine reality and fantasy in complex ways. Last year’s ‘Unreal Estate’ (where the Royal Academy had been sold off as a luxury playboy mansion) was both a criticism and celebration of neoliberal wealth (it was ‘bought’ by an anonymous Chinese billionaire). Even though it’s a dark satire, there is an element of truth: I would love to live there. But reality isn’t a simulation – the city is not Photoshopped. My hope is that the world does turn out like it is promised in glossy advertisements and 3D renderings. My fear is that it would be a nightmare. 

Watch ‘Europa, Mon Amour’ in full above, or check out more of Lawrence Lek’s work on his website here